Law: Preserver of Ethics

Syeda Amina Hussain - Feb. 15, 2024 - 4 min read - #Law

Law can be understood as the embodiment of a society’s ethics; therefore, by assessing a group’s law, we discern their ethical compass. While it is heavily influenced by morality, legislation also serves to protect existing ethical standards. Under authoritarian regimes, it may become a tool of oppression, prescribing acceptable behaviour.

By examining its evolution, it is evident that law is largely shaped by a nation’s predominant moral and ethical stances. In Anglo-Saxon law, for instance, murder of an adulterer caught in action was justifiable, rooted in the belief that witnessing such an act would evoke overwhelming rage. This justification was influenced by Anglo-Saxon England’s strong aversion to extramarital relations, which emanated from strict Christian principles. The law sided with the murderer in its commitment to upholding the contemporary ethical codes. Contrastingly, the UK’s increasing secularism has led to a belief that, while adultery may be denounced as immoral by many, it is also wrong to impose one’s religious ideals onto others. Consequently, adultery was decriminalised in 1857 when ecclesiastical law was brought under the jurisdiction of secular law.

Where morality changes and laws lag, efforts are made to update legislation to reflect modern moral standards. The decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 under the Sexual Offences Act is a case in point. Prior to its enactment, a National Opinion Poll by the Daily Mail revealed that 63% of respondents agreed that private homosexual acts should not be criminalised. This illustrates how disequilibrium between the two is rectified, and enforcement of current ethical stances is established.

In democratic societies, laws are often derived from societal ethics rather than arbitrarily dictating them. However, in autocratic and dictatorial systems, law can be crafted to engineer new systems of normality and, by extension, morality. For instance, North Korea stringently restricts foreign media and severe penalties are levied onto violators, as evidenced in 2009 when a toddler faced incarceration due to their parents possessing a Bible. Despite the regime’s oppressive stance, a study by Beyond Parallel found that 91.6% of North Korean respondents consumed foreign media at least monthly. Such laws are designed to disenfranchise their citizens, fostering xenophobic perspectives about other cultures; in these instances, morality is subverted for the benefit of a select elite.

Still, what is considered lawful oftens aligns with what is perceived as ethical. In countries like Egypt and Namibia, where homosexuality is illegal, locals might view its prohibition as a reflection of its immorality. Conversely, an outsider might infer that locals deem homosexuality immoral because it is illegal.

In summary, law and ethics influence one another in a cyclical manner, with legislation often trailing societal morality. When in concord, law works as the validation of societal ethics, enforcing them through punitive actions upon breaches. This synergy ensures the preservation of a community’s ethical integrity and overall well-being.